How I Made It

From i-banking to Imax: CEO on why flexibility is the key to success

Flexibility and restlessness are the reasons Imax CEO Richard Gelfond believes he was able to take the company from debt and distress to profit and Academy Awards. "High risk, high reward" are words to live by, he said.

"There really is a risk-reward curve in life," Gelfond told CNBC. "If you don't take chances, it's hard to get to the top."

Gelfond took an uncharted path to the top. His career swung from working as a clerk for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit to investment bank Drexel Burnham, before landing at Imax.

"Don't script it too carefully, go with the flow and keep your eyes open to opportunity," Gelfond recommended. "You just have to see the best short-term opportunity that in general gets you to the next place and follow it. Don't overthink it."

The key to success, he said, is having varied experiences in life.

"One of the problems is when you're set in one place it gets hard to move. It takes a lot of guts to move," he said.

Those who do progress should remember that they're not necessarily the smartest person in the room, Gelfond said. When he left investment banking for Imax, he visited theaters and worked in a few in order to get his bearings.

"You really can't run businesses unless you know how it works from the grass roots," Gelfond said, adding that if you think you know another industry, you're probably wrong. "You need to put the car in reverse a little bit and really learn what you're doing and really be open minded."

Richard Gelfond, CEO, Imax
Scott Mlyn | CNBC
Richard Gelfond, CEO, Imax

He suggested finding a mentor and listening closely. His own mentor was Max Rosenn, the appeals court judge Gelfond clerked for after law school. Rosenn, who was 30 years older than Gelfond, passed on some simple but invaluable lessons: Return every phone call and commit time to charity. Gelfond said he tries to replicate that relationship at Imax by passing down "business secrets" to his chief of staff.

Turning Imax into one of the world's top entertainment companies wasn't necessarily easy for him.

About 15 years ago, Imax had $250 million in debt, no cash flow, few films and a 55 cent stock price. It seemed like an impossible turnaround. But Gelfond said the only approach to that and any challenging situation is solving it one step at a time.

"If you're losing 35-0 at halftime you don't figure out how to score 36 points. You figure out how to score 7 points," Gelfond said. "Then you're only losing by 28 points."

His one-foot-in-front-of-another approach worked for the stock price. Shares of Imax were trading at about $4.45 per share when he took the helm on April 1, 2009. The company's stock is now worth around $32, an increase of more than 500 percent.

When he accepted an Academy Award on behalf of Imax in 1997, his family was shocked.

"My brother said to me I thought equal chances were you would win a Heisman Trophy," Gelfond said with a laugh. "I think it sums it up though you have to just not script out your career, you have to just see where the opportunities are."